Monday, July 24, 2006

The Investigation

Just when you thought that Community Board #2 couldn't get more complicated, enter the Department of Investigation. In a rare showing of equanimity, neither mentioned nor shared with the Full Board, the Chair of Community Board #2 and its Executive Committee apparently discussed a subpoena issued for all documents related to the Waterfront Committee and its deliberations during 2003 under the tutelage of Arthur Schwartz.

While Schwartz is currently the Chair of Parks, Waterfront and Open Space -- a title that seems to convey the impression that he's calling the shots on most of the external world in CB2's territory -- he was only the Chair of Waterfront in 2003, before he was summarily removed during the "Saturday Night Massacre" by Board Chair Aubrey Lees.

Her actions were spurred on by rumors of inside deals and financial coziness. In fact, the entire Waterfront Committee was disbanded as was the Pier 40 Working Group.

The theory at that time speculated that there was too much "friendship" between the developer, the Chair, and members of the Waterfront Committee who were charged with making recommendations to the Hudson River Park Trust (HRPT) as to which selection was preferred by the community after extensive review. The Korman/Durst plan seemed to have the inside track and was ultimately selected by the community anyway but was then rejected by the Trust. Schwartz actually sued the Trust over its rejection of the Korman plan but later withdrew the lawsuit.

What bothered some people was the fact that Korman was already the operator of the parking concession (a $5 million dollar per year operation), was friendly with Schwartz and needed support from Community Board #2 to get the nod from the Trust. Durst, the financial partner of the Pier 40 development team was a member of Friends of Hudson River Park (FOHRP), a respected watchdog group that supports the waterfront and its development and Schwartz was also a member of the FOHRP Board. For some, there just seemed to be too many interlocking interests.

So, why is all of this being resurrected again now?

The Korman/Durst plan was rejected by the HRPT and since that time some beautiful new ball fields have been installed at Pier 40 at a cost of $5 million dollars. This was agreed upon by the community after extensive hearings at Community Board #2, after Schwartz's ouster and prior to the election of the current Chair, Maria Derr.

Derr and Schwartz share a law office and were mutual supporters in the Board Chair elections. And, since Schwartz is now the high mucky-muck of everything in the Board #2's external universe, including Parks, Waterfront and Open Space, he is once again poised to be in the position to make the decision regarding Pier 40.

And, guess what was just issued?

That's right rangers, the new RFP for Pier 40. The classy moniker for the HRPT's announcement that it is now again ready to receive proposals for the development of the pier. This is a bid request for a 14 acre property in lower Manhattan. Modest estimates would place this puppy in the $250 million dollar category with no problem. There's a lot of room for fuzzy thinking in those numbers.

As Yogi Berra once said, "It's Deja Vue all over again."

With the shenanigans that have lately been going on at Board #2 with the Nightlife crew who took over the Board leadership and looking to shore up its connections at the Chamber of Commerce and the Nightlife Association -- following the money is something that members of the community are a little leery about. And, with the serious effort made by the current Board leadership at character assassination -- including using the talents of PR undercover operative Allen Roskoff -- it's not surprising that the issue has once again reared its ugly head. Anonymous letters, smears against David Reck (Derr's opposition candidate in the election), and attacks heaped upon community activists - make a cogent argument for some disgruntled downtown resident to want an investigation to be initiated.

The financial report on Treasurer Roscia Sanz and Chair Maria Derr's watch has been the subject of much consternation and has caused such a stir that records have been requested by the Borough President's office as a result of their being too little, too late provided to the Full Board. The sums in that matter were in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The Pier 40 RFP, controlled now by the same people, involves hundreds of millions of dollars. Somebody is uncomfortable about the situation.

Stay tuned.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Trump This

You have to give him credit. He keeps on coming.

Despite tremendous opposition to Donald Trump's attempt to develop the Spring and Varick Street parcel into a 45 story Hotel/Condo his people attended the recent Zoning Committee hearing of Community Board #2.

Of course, the Donald hasn't yet met Andrew Berman. Through the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP), Executive Director Berman has managed to move his focus from Gansevoort to the West Village and now onto SoHo in his mission to downzone and preserve downtown communities. Few landlords would place him high on their list of favorites. In zoning circles, he is as well known as Trump is himself.

Berman describes the Trump development as a Trojan Horse Hotel, and just as illegal as 848 Washington Street was before the Hi-line became a fact of life. His concern is that allowing an as-of-right development disguised as a "Hotel condo" - would set a precedent for further residential development in this area without having to pass through the review process normally required of such a variance application. In Berman's words it would "strip away" zoning protection in areas like NoHo, SoHo, the Meatpacking District and the Far West Village. Berman calls this development plan an "illegal circumvention of the law."

Key, of course, is taking action to prevent any kind of proposed development of this magnitude.

Substantially more than 100 residents came out to express their opposition to the plan and as a result a resolution was passed denying the application at the Community Board's Zoning Committee.

There is a long and growing list of elected officials downtown that are opposing the plan and thus far the City has not issued any permits. It looks like they might have a very big stampede if they were to do so. Opposing Andrew Berman is like fooling with Mother Nature when it comes to zoning issues.

Diether's new role as the Chair of the Zoning Committee is like Yogi Berra's "deja vu all over again." After David Reck was fired by Board Chair Maria Derr for opposing her in last month's election contest, the only Board Member left who could claim to have the knowledge of how to run the Zoning Committee was Doris Diether. Reck was unquestionably the most knowledgable and competent person on what is described as "wacky Board 2."

As a white-haired survivor of the Community Board wars, Doris Deither (at 86) is not someone to be trifled with. Like a cat dropped from dizzying heights she always seems to land on her feet. The only trouble is that she has a Conflict of Interest and no amount of sympathy for the octagenerian changes that fact. Gentle little white haired old ladies can also be wily foxes that cut corners. The most recent ruling on her private consulting work which she does for landlords and developers - whether they come in front of Community Board #2 or not - was ruled on by Borough President Virginia Fields a few years back. During the 80's Diether had been told that as long as clients did not appear in front of any Board Committee of which she was Chair (the most likely being Zoning), it would fly. However, that was changed by Fields a few years ago.

The current ruling, made by Fields, prohibits any Chair of the Zoning Committee from engaging in a business relationship with landlords or developers that go before any Community Board.

The race between Maria Derr and David Reck was widely viewed by downtown as a loss to the Nightlife people, but the lopsided rejection of several liquor license applicants shows us that isn't the case.

In fact, what was suspected by some and now appears likely is that there was a well-coordinated smear campaign that started several months before the election itself that was later augmented by a fear campaign. This secret agenda, organized with the help of political operatives like Allen Roskoff of the Durham Group - a close personal friend of Maria Derr - and supported by the Nightlife contingent on the Board (Roscia Sanz, Phil Mouquinho, Bob Rinaolo and supporters like John Maggio and John Diaz), was part of a coordinated campaign of fear and intimidation. Some members on the Board were threatened where it hurts - in the pocketbook. Particular Board members are dependent upon referrals from political connections friendly to Derr. Ray Cline of VRDC, for example, has made it known in the past that Judges dole out patronage assignments (foreclosures, probate, etc) and control purse strings in the political arena - and Board members not voting correctly would not be smiled upon if Derr did not win. Others were threatened with expulsion to the archipelagos of the Board like the Youth Committee or the LBT Committee. Still others Board members did not want to risk the wrath of a vindictive and vengeful Chair despite the Kennedyesque fiction and much-hyped aura claimed by the Passanante-Derr connection. Between the fear, the intimidation (some Board members were told to vote for Derr, Sanz, Maggio, and Diaz), the financial threat and the threat of expulsion to a political Siberia - worked.

Election speeches and articles about Community Board #2 as corrupt body were drowned out and not welcome. For the last year, and now for another year, it will be business as usual. The Chamber of Commerce and Nightlife Association will continue to run Board #2.

The Borough President's office has stepped in and commented upon the selection process for District Manager of Community Board #2 . Up to this point, the process has suffered from a lack of Sunlight. Even a flashlight would have been helpful. Maria Derr is handling the confidential legal work for the Estate of Arty Strickler (the now dearly departed District Manager), yet the selection committee seems to be suffering from the same level of privacy. The BP's office has commented that the level of disclosure emanating from the Personnel Committee which was configured to select a new District Manager -- having conducted 7 meetings and 14 interviews without reporting anything to the Board membership -- is a violation of the By-laws. All requests for a peek at the CV's was either ignored or given lip-service. Board members didn't even know who the candidates were until this past week and the vote will be held on Wednesday. It is a mockery of Democratic process and is insulting to the membership of the entire Board.

The Personnel Committee, controlled by Derr supporters (Derr, Schwartz, Sanz, Yankay) should be disbanded, the election should be cancelled and the process should begin anew -- observing the "Sunlight laws." All of the Board members, with comment from the community (which has contact with the District Manager on a day to day basis), should have access to resumes and all of the proceedings. Arty Strickler was sometimes perceived as heavy-handed and sometimes insulting to community members who wanted information. That should not be the face of the new Community Board #2.